The best books on eunuchs

3 authors have picked their favorite books about eunuchs and why they recommend each book.

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The Persian Boy

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The Persian Boy

Although published in 1972, this novel feels as fresh as the day it was written. I read it as a child, a long time before I knew what ‘gay’ was, let alone knew it meant me. But the voice of the narrator Bagoas spoke to me clear across the centuries. He’s a young man from the time of Alexander the Great, sold as a eunuch slave, and he’s heartbreaking, funny, and poignant. An absolutely stunning creation.

The novel also taught me how it’s far more effective to write about a famous historical character from the viewpoint of a bystander.


Who am I?

It’s no surprise to hear I’m drawn to stories featuring outsiders, people who don’t / won’t conform and are fed up trying to force themselves into the narrow roles society offers. Folk who slide under the radar, and never make it into history books (which is all of us, right?). This springs from being an outsider myself, the weird kid who didn’t fit. I’ve chosen novels where the LGBTQ+ characters strive and struggle but do not die tragically. Put simply, they are real people, complete with flaws and strengths. These books are your very own Time Machines: wonderful stories to transport you into the past.


I wrote...

Vixen

By Rosie Garland,

Book cover of Vixen

What is my book about?

Devon, 1349. Seagulls screech across the fields and the wind has a mind to change. New priest Father Thomas arrives in an isolated village. Determined to impress his congregation, he quells fears of the coming pestilence with promises of protection.

For Anne, the priest’s arrival is an opportunity she feels all too ready for. Convinced a grand fate awaits, she moves in as Thomas’s housekeeper, though hopeful of something more. But his home is a place without love or kindness. So when a mysterious young woman appears out of the marshes, Anne takes her in, grateful for the company. But soon the plague strikes, spreading panic. The villagers’ fear turns to anger. Thomas must sacrifice everything to restore their faith, with terrible consequences.

The Sheen on the Silk

By Anne Perry,

Book cover of The Sheen on the Silk

Anne Perry is a superb mystery writer who ventured once into the Byzantine world with this novel and I am so glad she did. The story takes place in 1273, twelve years after the overthrow of the Latin rulers who had occupied Constantinople since the horrific attack by the leaders of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The city still struggles to recover and a young woman, Anna Lascaris, who has learned medicine from her father, decides to disguise herself as a eunuch to more easily find out who framed her brother for murder, which resulted in his exile to a distant monastery. Poisonous political intrigue swirls around Anna/Anastasius as she practices the healing arts while searching for clues about who was the true killer.   


Who am I?

John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium ignited my passion for the Byzantines in the early 2000s. I knew little about them before reading that book; now I rarely read any other topic. I have always loved historical fiction and was dismayed to find so few books about the Byzantines. Once I read about the remarkable life of Anna Dalassena I realized I had found a character to write about and remedy that shortage. I am presently working on my fifth book and third novel, which will be about Anna’s son, Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. I also have a book of short stories and a brief Byzantine history.


I wrote...

Imperial Passions - The Great Palace

By Eileen Stephenson,

Book cover of Imperial Passions - The Great Palace

What is my book about?

This is the second of two novels about the life of Anna Dalassena, an 11th century well-born Byzantine woman and the mother of the Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. Imperial Passions - The Great Palace opens in Constantinople in 1057 when the magnificent Byzantine Empire only still existed because its enemies had not realized how years of corrurpt rulers had weakened it. At first Anna’s brother-in-law, Isaac I Comnenus, rules the empire struggling to make needed changes. When illness forces his retirement, Anna is crushed when her own husband, John, declines the throne. Then her greatest enemy, Constantine Ducas, becomes emperor. The turbulence of these troubled years finally force Anna to recognize her own pivotal role in the destiny of the empire’s fortunes and that of her family.

Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

By Shih-Shan Henry Tsai,

Book cover of Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty

My favorite Ming dynasty source. It is rich with details on the eunuch institution during the Ming dynasty including its supply chain— the parts of society and of the world where eunuchs were historically drawn. Described here, are the various agencies within the Beijing Forbidden City where Ming dynasty eunuchs worked: Carpentry, Palace Servants, Palace Foods, Royal Clothing, the Nursing Home, and others, including a Toilet Paper agency. Readers not only gain insights on the imperial palace’s operations, but also on the eunuch ranking system, the emperors’ policies concerning eunuchs, and the rise of powerful eunuchs in the Ming secret police (Eastern Depot) and in Ming diplomacy. The latter came to its apogee with Admiral Zheng He, himself a eunuch, leading the Ming fleet during seven world voyages.


Who am I?

I am an honours graduate in aerospace engineering and psychology and I have written five historical novels. My debut novel, The Ming Storytellers, is set during China’s Ming dynasty and was well-reviewed by the Historical Novel Society. To pen this 600-page saga, I spent six years researching the Ming dynasty while studying a year of mandarin. I have travelled to Beijing, along the Great Wall, and to China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Being a descendant of the Vietnamese royal family gave me access to rich genealogical sources passed down from my scholarly ancestors. These stories of concubines, eunuchs, and mandarins made the past come alive, complementing my research with plausible drama.


I wrote...

The Ming Storytellers

By Laura Rahme,

Book cover of The Ming Storytellers

What is my book about?

Set against the backdrop of China’s sixth naval expedition in the early Ming dynasty, this is the story of an imperial concubine’s rise in the reign of the Yong Le emperor, and her forbidden relationship with one of China’s most illustrious figures, Admiral Zheng He. A complex tale of thwarted love, adventure, crime, and mystery, The Ming Storytellers brings a cast of fascinating supporting characters. We meet a mysterious storyteller on board Zheng He’s ship whose long winding tale will turn out to be more than it originally seemed. Also traveling with the Ming fleet and bound for her home in Zanzibar, the secretive Persian traveller, Shahrzad, watches Zheng He closely. But what does she seek? 

A rich story unfolding in Beijing, on the Ming ships, and in a mountainous village in Yunnan, The Ming Storytellers explores a distant world and brings to life key events in China’s history.

River God

By Wilbur Smith,

Book cover of River God

We follow the slave, Taita, an expert in art, poetry, medicine, and engineering after he is commanded to look after a young princess married off to the Pharoah. Smith’s portrayal of ancient Egypt during the era of the pharaohs will enthrall you, all while weaving a heart-racing tale of bravery, heroism, revenge, and love. I particularly had a fondness for the faithful and affectionate friendship he had with the Queen all throughout her life.


Who am I?

I am an Amazon Best-Selling author, playwright, songwriter, American-born daughter of immigrants, and mom to two amazing sons. What inspires me to write are untold stories of hope, heroism, and humanity that I, too, hope to share with the world. Personally, I knew from the time I first began hearing my grandparents’ stories of their lives in Germany and Czechoslovakia during WWII, how important it was to preserve them for future generations. With that in mind – their tribulations and refusal to allow what they endured to dominate their lives for the rest of their days – I became determined to ensure that what my grandparents had experienced would not be forgotten.


I wrote...

Roses in a Forbidden Garden; A Holocaust Love Story

By Elise Garibaldi,

Book cover of Roses in a Forbidden Garden; A Holocaust Love Story

What is my book about?

Amidst the unspeakable horrors of Hitler’s Concentration Camps, a young German girl finds beauty and love for a man that will span a lifetime. This story is the true account of Inge Katz; the striking daughter of a successful businessman who meets and falls in love with a handsome fellow inmate. But when he gets shipped “Out East” to a Death Camp, she goes years not knowing if he is alive or dead. Her love for this man endures against all odds – from Nazi rifles to starvation, to disease, to assaults of allied fire. But as time passes without word or confirmation of his survival, should she remain loyal, or, as everyone suggests, move on with another?

Garibaldi reveals her grandmother’s most intimate feelings during those terrible times.

The Venus Throw

By Steven Saylor,

Book cover of The Venus Throw: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Mystery writer Steven Saylor’s recreations of late Republican Rome are the best out there. The Venus Throw finds Saylor’s detective, Gordianus the Finder, investigating the death of an Egyptian ambassador visiting the city. Through Gordianus’ search we meet a range of Romans known from historical sources including a noble woman, a love poet, and a eunuch priest of the eastern goddess Cybele. Saylor captures the variety of the city’s inhabitants and its places. You step into elegant houses, a dive bar with sour wine, and public baths where the floor is “heated to just the right temperature by the hot-water pipes underneath.” The Venus Throw is not the first entry in the Gordianus series but you can start with it, as I did, and then read all the others. One of these books’ many strengths is attention to the lives of slaves.


Who am I?

I am a historian of ancient Rome. My interest was sparked in my high school Latin classes. On my first trip to Rome, several years later, I truly fell in love. I could see the famed orator delivering his fierce attacks against Catiline amid the grand temples of the Forum and its surrounding hills. I could imagine myself standing in a crowd, listening. In Washington DC, where I now live and teach at Georgetown University, there are classical buildings all around to keep me inspired. I have written a number of books about Roman political history and have also translated the biographer Suetonius and the historian Sallust.


I wrote...

Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE

By Josiah Osgood,

Book cover of Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE–20 CE

What is my book about?

Rome and the Making of a World State offers a clear and lively account of the fall of the Roman Republic. By moving beyond the conventional stopping date of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, this book traces not only political breakdown but also a longer arc of cultural transformation. In the midst of violence and civil war, the Romans reimagined citizenship and extended it widely, developed a more inclusive vision of empire, and turned the city of Rome into an artistic center with a lively literary scene. With rich descriptions of Rome and also Pompeii in southern Italy, Osgood shows how marble temples, lavish baths, and vast sports arenas sprang up among dingy, disease-filled streets in which large numbers of people lived enslaved. 

Fortune's Child

By James Conroyd Martin,

Book cover of Fortune's Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora

Byzantine history has only sporadically inspired historical fiction, although Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian, has had more than a few novels written about her. I’ve read and enjoyed many of them but this book is one of the best. Her dramatic life encompassed the deadly Nike riots, the building of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, and the Justinianic Plague. And did I mention that she was a courtesan prior to marrying Justinian? Martin’s Theodora is a glorious and sympathetic woman, even if flawed. The author tells her story wonderfully through the eyes of a court eunuch!


Who am I?

John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium ignited my passion for the Byzantines in the early 2000s. I knew little about them before reading that book; now I rarely read any other topic. I have always loved historical fiction and was dismayed to find so few books about the Byzantines. Once I read about the remarkable life of Anna Dalassena I realized I had found a character to write about and remedy that shortage. I am presently working on my fifth book and third novel, which will be about Anna’s son, Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. I also have a book of short stories and a brief Byzantine history.


I wrote...

Imperial Passions - The Great Palace

By Eileen Stephenson,

Book cover of Imperial Passions - The Great Palace

What is my book about?

This is the second of two novels about the life of Anna Dalassena, an 11th century well-born Byzantine woman and the mother of the Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. Imperial Passions - The Great Palace opens in Constantinople in 1057 when the magnificent Byzantine Empire only still existed because its enemies had not realized how years of corrurpt rulers had weakened it. At first Anna’s brother-in-law, Isaac I Comnenus, rules the empire struggling to make needed changes. When illness forces his retirement, Anna is crushed when her own husband, John, declines the throne. Then her greatest enemy, Constantine Ducas, becomes emperor. The turbulence of these troubled years finally force Anna to recognize her own pivotal role in the destiny of the empire’s fortunes and that of her family.

City of Djinns

By William Dalrymple,

Book cover of City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi

This book introduced a whole new way of travel and history writing for me. It beautifully merges the experiences of the author, his interactions with people, and the history of the city he is engaged with. I loved how he used everyday conversations and experiences to link it back to historical moments and told a chronological story of an amazing city. The book is important to me because it also taught me that travel writing can happen within one’s home and one’s own city. One doesn’t need to travel hundreds of miles, in a foreign country, to engage in travel writing. It helped me conceptualize travel writing in a new way.


Who am I?

I love reading history that is told in an experimental, interesting manner – history merged with travel, fiction, magical realism, etc. I began my writing career as a travel writer, bringing together history with travel but increasingly I have begun to experiment more. My book Walking with Nanak brings together 4 genres. One intellectual question that I have pursued through my writing is challenging modern notions of national, religious, and ethnic identities. I see my writing style as an extension of that pursuit, breaking away from the neat compartmentalization of genres. 


I wrote...

Walking with Nanak

By Haroon Khalid,

Book cover of Walking with Nanak

What is my book about?

Walking with Nanak is an experimental book that brings together different narratives, genres, and writing styles, including fiction, history, magical realism, and poetry. It is a book that traces the story of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, the story of the author and his discovery of Guru Nanak’s legacy, the story of Sikh Gurus, the evolution of Sikh history, and finally the poetry and hagiography of Guru Nanak.  

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